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Rethinking Dąbrowski’s Theory II: It’s Not All Flat Here

  • Institute for Educational Advancement


Unilevel disintegration, the second level in Dąbrowski’s theory, does not have a structure comparable to the higher levels. It also lacks direction. If so, one is bound to ask what is developmental about it and what, in fact, is developing in level II. Two classsic studies and one of highly gifted adults show three possible kinds of emotional development on the not-so-flat plane of level II: a personal growth from black-and-white to relativistic thinking, from no sense of self to an individual self, and fulfillment of one’s talents as a productive member of society. Viewing the levels as types of development makes clear that the first two levels are not precursors to advanced development.
Rethinking Dąbrowskis Theory II:
Its Not All Flat Here
Michael M. Piechowski
Unilevel disintegration, the second level in Dąbrowskis theory, does not have a structure compar-
able to the higher levels. It also lacks direction. If so, one is bound to ask what is developmental
about it and what, in fact, is developing in level II. Two classsic studies and one of highly gifted
adults show three possible kinds of emotional development on the not-so-at plane of level II: a
personal growth from black-and-white to relativistic thinking, from no sense of self to an individual
self, and fulllment of ones talents as a productive member of society. Viewing the levels as types
of development makes clear that the rst two levels are not precursors to advanced development.
Keywords: development of self, emotional development, ethical development, gifted adults,
intellectual development, level II, relativism, theory of positive disintegration, unilevel
The goal of this article is to address a neglected area in
Dąbrowskis theory of positive disintegration, a theory of
emotional development. By development Dąbrowski meant
personal growth much like scaling a mountain rather than the
sequential unfolding of childhood, adolescence, and adult-
hood. His theory attracted attention for two reasons: one, it
is a theory that makes sense of emotional development of
gifted children and adults and, two, it represents a masterful
effort to rescue from psychopathology the characteristics of
the gifted (overexcitabilities) and their developmental crises.
The theory addresses the inner struggles to become an authen-
tic self, struggles that also place one at odds with social reality.
Overexcitabilitythe descriptive component of
Dąbrowskis theoryhas become familiar, in research and
practice, as a recognizable characteristic of gifted children
and adults. Overexcitability has also become part of the deni-
tion of giftedness as asynchronous development (Silverman,
1997). The theory denes ve developmental levels: primary
integration (level I), unilevel disintegration (level II), sponta-
neous multilevel disintegration (level III), organized multilevel
disintegration (level IV), secondary integration (level V). The
challenge in understanding the theory lies in the fact that the
levels are not successive stages but represent different types of
development. Furthermore, level I is not the starting point of
development in Dąbrowskis sense (Piechowski, 2014b).
The ve-level edice of the theory has found little applica-
tion in gifted education despite the fact that adolescence is often
a time of deep emotional change of the positive disintegration
kind. The exception is Jacksonsworkondepressioningifted
adolescents (Jackson, 1998; Jackson & Moyle, 2008a,2008b;
Jackson, Moyle, & Piechowski, 2009; Jackson & Peterson,
2003) and Petersons work (Peterson, 2012,2014).
Part I presented the argument that the label primary
integration is misleading and should be discarded
(Piechowski, 2014b,2015). The argument was based on
research in child development.
Level II, the so-called unilevel disintegration, has not received
much attention. Whatever happens there lacks the charisma of
the more advanced levels that are lled with intense inner
struggles and are populated by lofty moral exemplars.
Accepted 30 August 2016.
Address correspondence to Michael M. Piechowski, Institute for
Educational Advancement, 119 Ski Court, Madison, WI 53713. E-mail:
Roeper Review, 39:8795, 2017
Copyright © The Roeper Institute
ISSN: 0278-3193 print / 1940-865X online
DOI: 10.1080/02783193.2017.1289487
The paradox of Dąbrowskis theory is that as a theory of
development it includes two levels in which there is little or
no development. Dąbrowski often referred to the rst level
as adevelopmental and to the second as a process of loosen-
ing of rigid mental structures. This loosening occurs on a
single structural and emotional level(Dąbrowski, 1964,p.
6)which sounds almost like a negation of development.
The puzzle of level II is this: what develops here, and is
there a signicant emotional growth?
Level II is often treated with disdainas if the psychologi-
cal life at this level were not worthy of exploration
(Piechowski, 2014b). Though level III presents a distinct prole
and has been explored through case studies and other research
(Mróz, 2002,2009; Piechowski, 1990,1992,2009;Spaltro,
1991), the second level of Dąbrowskistheoryisratheramor-
phous. In his posthumous book W poszukiwaniu zdrowia psy-
chicznego (In Search of Mental Health), Dąbrowski (1996)
described the plane of unilevel disintegration as follows:
Individuals belonging to this group demonstrate some capacity
for development, a certain developmental loosening, or even
breakdown, although of unclear direction. Developmental
direction is unclear because a distinct hierarchy of values is
lacking. Such individuals are characterized by ambivalences
and ambitendencies, contradictory drives and actions, change-
able moods with prevalence of negative elements:sadnessand
dejection, typically with cyclic shifts from one mood to another.
Their feelings alternate between inferiority and superiority,
between syntony and opposition. The lack of a distinct devel-
opmental direction resolves in frequent suicidal tendencies and
grave psychological disturbances. The inner psychic milieu of
such individuals evidences unilevel development. (p. 43, my
translation, italics added)
Despite its negative loading, this description allows for
some capacity for development.Because it is restricted
to one plane, what might be this capacity? The second
levels central feature is the lack of a hierarchy of values.
In earlier writing, Dąbrowski emphasized the absence of a
clear hierarchic factor that would appraise specic attitudes
(1962, p. 83). An example of a hierarchic factor is the
dynamism of positive maladjustment. When one catches on
to the disparity between what is”—injustice, dishonesty,
exploitation, denial of human rightsand what ought to
be”—the universal values of justice, truth, fairness, and
respect for human rightsit creates a strong reaction.
Dąbrowski did not mean that everyone agrees on universal
values but only that people at advanced levels of develop-
ment do, people like Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma
Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Father Kolbe, and Janusz
Korczak (Dąbrowski, 1970). One can add Eleanor
Roosevelt, Etty Hillesum, Dag Hammarskjoeld, Peace
Pilgrim, Dorothy Day, Abraham H. Maslow, Nelson
Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Malala
Yusafzai, and modern martyrs such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Janani Luwum, Bishop
Oscar Romero, Maria Skobtsova (Craig, 1985), and Fr. Jerzy
Popiełuszko, who as a witness to truth and human dignity
inspired Solidarity and whose murder accelerated the end of
communism in Poland (Ruane, 2004).
No such agreement on universal values exists at level II;
instead, values are viewed as changeable and relative, con-
forming to local beliefs and prejudices. On this plane, one
frequently hears the argument that ultimately the motivation
behind the ideals of moral exemplars is basically selsh. The
cognitive and emotional myopia of unilevel mentality attens
out the multilevel mountain of higher ideals to a pancake.
Level II (unilevel disintegration), according to
Dąbrowski, has the following features:
AmbivalencesMood uctuations, alternating feelings
of inferiority and superiority, approach and avoidance,
love and hate.
AmbitendenciesChangeable and contradictory courses
of action involve self-defeating behaviors and irrecon-
cilable desires.
Second factorThe individuals values, ideas, and
aspirations are governed by social opinion and the
need to conform; values and ideals are assumed always
to be relative.
SyntonyPositive emotions toward others can easily
turn to resentment or jealousy; a tendency to be overly
involved with others may turn to dependency or
enmeshment. Sensitivity and irritability exist side by
side. Identication with others is more likely with the
image one has of a person than with the essence of that
person (Dąbrowski, 1970,1977).
Dąbrowski used the metaphor of a directing and disposing
center for what today is referred to as executive function.Itis
the individuals will. Unilevel will is expressed in ambiten-
dencies. One could say that there are many wills at work and,
not infrequently, at cross purposes. Dąbrowski pointed to
adolescence as a period during which direction often changes.
Consequently, one can hear teenagers say that they feel like
being many selves or many Is(Piechowski,2014a).
Even though level II purports to be a level of develop-
ment through positive disintegration, none of its features
display anything to qualify as emotional and personal
growth. The picture we have so far is dominated by emo-
tional uctuations, inner contradictions, adaptation to soci-
etal norms, and lack of depth in relationships.
Three research studies will serve as sources of material to
reveal the panorama of genuine emotional development in
level II: A study of intellectual and ethical development of
college students (Perry, 1970, 1970/1998); a study of the
development of self, voice, and mind in women (Belenky,
Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986,1997); and a study of
self-actualization and morality in highly gifted adults (Ruf,
1998,2009). All three studies are based on numerous inter-
views and questionnaire material. Perrys study is the oldest
but not outdated as evidenced by it being reprinted in 1998.
In addition, a review of subsequent research and theoretical
renements showed that Perrys model continues to serve
well in assessment of how students view knowledge, in
career planning, in the teaching and learning environment,
and in other areas (Moore, 2002).
Between 1954 and 1963, William G. Perry (1970) conducted
a study of intellectual and ethical development of college
students. Volunteers for the study were interviewed each
year; 80% were men attending Harvard and 20% were
women attending Radcliffe. A total of 84 4-year interviews
were obtained. The students came with a set of beliefs and a
worldview brought from home, church, and school, largely
unquestioned. At Harvard they met with a diverse body of
students and faculty, though, naturally, the diversity of 50
years ago was not what it is today. Perry (1970) cited, as an
indicator of diversity, that 72% of the students were from out
of state but does not mention racial and ethnical composition.
The entering studentsthinking was characteristically
dualistic, black and white: their own worldview was right
and good and all others wrong and bad. Now at college
they encountered a confounding multiplicity of views,
values, and assumptions about what is true. They resisted
the uncertainty but eventually accommodated it by adopt-
ing the position that anyone has a right to his opinion.
Coursework in social sciences and humanities continued to
press them to learn that all knowledge and all values
depend on context and consequently are relative.
It is not easy to give up the unquestioned beliefs one grew
up with. Many students reported periods of conscious strug-
gle: All this diversity has subjected my attitude to consider-
able doubt. It no longer stands on the ground it once stood on
(Perry, 1970,p.175);You constantly have times of doubt and
tensiona natural thing in existing and being open, trying to
understand the world around you(Perry, 1970, p. 165). For
some students college was a shattering experienceof tear-
ing down old patterns(Perry, 1970, p. 123).
They struggled to keep their earlier security of home-
town values against being at sea with mounting relativistic
uncertainties and against the apprehension about further
changes leading possibly to catastrophic disorganization.
The urge to move forward in opposition to the urge to
conserve is an example of unilevel conict. It does not
involve a hierarchy of values.
Perry did not take ability into account. The struggle to
keep up with heavy load of homework was exacerbated by
pressure to revamp their thinking. They saw as the brains
those who embraced relativism easily.
Interestingly, Perry (1970) says that the Position at
which a student was rated as a freshman was not predictive
of the position in his senior year(p. 56). In other words,
some black and white dualists became genuine relativists,
and some espousing multiplicity and pluralism of views of
the unexamined sort (everyones opinion is as good as
anyone elses) could still hold that position as seniors. A
minority acknowledged avoiding, denying, or ghting
something. They felt uneasy or dissatised.
Those who were aware of their own evolution and
maturation toward relativism felt a sense of satisfaction.
The urge toward maturity, to take a responsible role in life,
came from within themselves. Many forces were moving
them forward: curiosity, striving for competence, the urge
to resolve incongruities and dissonances. The anomalies of
their experience were forcing them to expand their way of
seeing things. To open up to the new requires accommoda-
tion rather than assimilation (incorporating the new into
ones old ready-made schemas that require no reorganiza-
tion of mental furniture). They desired authenticity in per-
sonal relationships and an identity.
Trying to describe the many inuences on his mental
growth, one student said, Its like an amoeba which
extends a pseudopodium in one direction and follows the
whole thing(Perry, 1970, p. 165). We can complete the
image knowing that moments later the amoeba extends a
pseudopodium in another direction and thus obtain an apt
image of ambitendencies. No focal direction is operating,
just one attractor or another. But lack of direction does not
mean that no growth is taking place.
Amidst all the contextual variety and uncertainty of
what is securely true, the relativist has to develop and
afrm his own values, his own way of examining evidence
and evaluating the basis for different views.
Many questions face students in their college years:
Why do we exist? Can one have objective morality?
What is the basis for evaluating life choices? What are
my principles? What is my responsibility? Perry (1970)
cites the interview material extensively but includes hardly
any specics to illuminate how the students wrestled with
these issues. He says that the goal of education for the
young men is to embrace relativism and at the same time
to develop an identity, choose a vocation, and develop ones
own set of values in the relativistic context; in short, to
choose a way of life that one can commit oneself to. He
regards relativism as the triumph of human thought perhaps
equal to the development of language. Might one transcend
relativism? Perry considered the possibility that one could
commit to faith in the Absolute and at the same time feel
morally obliged to respect other positions and abstain from
attempts to convert others to ones own.
A minority of students resisted the intellectual paradigm
offered at Harvard. Some felt that they were driftingan
epitome of unilevel process. Some waited for outside
events or fate to decide for them; others were slow to
grasp what was expected of them. Still others reacted
strongly against the intellectual efforts of relativism and
regressed into the unexamined pluralism of everyones
position being as good as anyone elses. There were also
those who clung to the original authority familiar to them
and those who totally rejected any establishment. One
senior said that he gained by being at Harvard but without
losing anything. He assimilated the knowledge without
letting it change his way of thinking.
A new way of thinking may take a long time to develop
prociency in it. It demands an emotional adjustment
amidst nonhierarchical searching and oundering: I
havent had enough practice to think that way(Perry,
1970, p. 180). Those who prefer accumulating information,
to have a ground to stand on, are more likely to be concrete
thinkers who nd exhausting and confusing the lack of
denitive answers in social sciences and humanities, the
endless ways of interpreting literature, the numberless con-
tributing causes coming into play in social phenomena.
They express their feelings like this (Perry, 1970):
I just drift along perhaps later I may nd out that
Im not happy in my drift;it might turn out when I get
older, Ill nd Im living a hollow life.(p. 190)
Ive never really identied myself denitely with any-
thing.(p. 194)
So the best thing I have to do is just forget about deciding.
I mean not to give up on any scheming or any basic set of
ideas thatll give myself, theyll give me a direction. Just
give up completely, and when it comes down to individual
choices, make them on what I feel like doing emotionally at
the moment.(p. 195)
Im very anxious to have some true beliefs. But then it goes
away, very quickly; I cant trust my beliefs(p. 196)an
escape from complexity and yearning to be again cocooned
in a secure framework.
What lies ahead is either further growthand some stu-
dents expressed a feeling of guilt for their own failure to
themselvesor an escape into sheer competence in the
hope that through intensity of focus, all ambivalences
will be magically resolved(Perry, 1970, p. 196). They
can also settle into a life of a family member and respon-
sible citizen that nevertheless, some years down the road,
may result in a feeling of having missed something. Such
was the case with the gifted men in Kerr and Cohns(2001)
longitudinal study. Or, they can nd fulllment in the
application of their talents in what Ruf (2009) called career
self-actualization (as opposed to inner self-actualization).
Personal growth may or may not be resumed. It is a rare
seeker who embarks on the quest for inner transformation.
When a sense of self is undeveloped, personal growth takes
place toward gaining a sense of ones individuality, coming
into ones own as a person. Belenky et al.s (1986, 1997)
study is a rich source for better understanding of the emo-
tional and cognitive growth process that is unilevel. When
women liberate themselves from prescribed gender roles,
they enter a phase of subjectivisman uncritical reliance
on their own opinions and beliefs. Later a shift takes place
from subjectivism to acceptance of reasoning and objective
knowledge. Belenky and colleagues called embracing
objective knowledge separate knowing. Further, when
empathic knowing arises in relationship with the object of
inquiry, which could be a person or something else, they
called it connected knowing. Eventually, separate and con-
nected knowing become integrated. Not everyone gets
there, of course, and the cases of such integration that the
Belenky team cite all appear to be gifted women. Whether
it involves any inner transformation of the kind Dąbrowski
named multilevel is difcult to know, but clearly the devel-
opmental changes they describe are essentially unilevel.
Building on Perrys scheme, Belenky et al. (1986, 1997)
conducted extensive interviews with women from various
walks of life in order to trace the development of womens
sense of self, voice, and mind. Of the 135 women in the study,
90 were students in six diverse academic institutions, and 45
were recruited from family agencies. About the latter the
authors said, Since motheringthe traditional role for
womenhas as its center the teaching of the next generation,
we were particularly interested in how maternal practice
might shape womens thinking about human development
and the teaching relationship(Belenky et al., 1986,p.13).
The study was cross-sectional and only in part long-
itudinal because some participants were interviewed at
different times during their college years. Women were
found functioning at various points of the developmental
spectrum derived from Perrys schema.
In Rethinking I, the argument was that primary inte-
gration describes not a type of personality but a condition
of life shaped by social power structure and economics.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a male-dominated
society where women are subjugated in their gender-
stereotypic roles. In extreme cases they have no sense
of self and no voice of their own. Their identity derives
from what they do, not who they are. They feel passive,
reactive, and dependent, they see authority as all-power-
ful(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 27). They exist without self-
reection, not unlike the young gifted adolescents who
have not yet thought about their own self (Piechowski,
2014a). It is not easy to tell from quoted statements what
is type and what is deciency brought on by subjugation.
For example, a woman said, I think my mind is really
structured. I have to have things all clearly laid out in
front of me(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 42); a gifted girl
said, I like to learn and I like to do things well. I am a
person who likes things to be clearly denedIwantto
know what is expected of me in a given situation
(Piechowski, 2014a, p. 223). Both statements sound char-
acteristic of the action-oriented type of person who
requires order and organization. Surface similarity of
the two examples does not tell us whether or not they
are at the same developmental level.
A female college freshman said, Iamnicepolite to
people, that kind of thing. I like to be nice to peopleto help
people(Belenky et al., 1986, p. 46); a gifted male high school
student said that his feeling of pleasure came from knowing
Ive done something right, or that Ive done something that
helps another person. Ive helped this person when he or she is
better off when they leave than when they came(Piechowski,
2014a, p. 214). One cannot assign level to the motivation to be
kind and helpful without knowing more about the people
following this principle.
At the lower end are women who, like Perrys freshmen,
did not question the authoritys view of how the world
works. Neither did they question the subservient place
assigned to them. They did not have a sense of themselves
as individuals in their own right.
Those who trust external authority unquestioningly depend
on it for dening who they are. They derive a sense of self
from their role, from what they do rather than from who they
are: Ive never had a personality. Ive always been someones
daughter, someones wife, someones mother(Belenky et al.,
1986, p. 82). One cannot help but notice the parallel with
giftedness dened as doing, as producing gifted behaviors, as
opposed to giftedness as an attribute of the person, with right
to self-determination (Grant & Piechowski, 1999; Subotnik,
Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011).
For Perrys Harvard boys the disintegrative push came
from their encounter with diverse points of view. Dualism
had to loosen up and give way to acceptance of multiplicity
of perspectives. For the Belenky teams women, the disin-
tegrative push came from ssures in the authoritys facade.
A crisis erupts when authority is exposed as wrong,
deceiving, or physically and sexually abusive. This can
happen in the context of family, church, or of the whole
nation as it did during the Vietnam War. Feeling betrayed,
people reject the authority that has failed them. They begin
to look for self-knowledge and self-denition in people like
themselves and eventually in themselves.
The rst step is to move from passively accepting what the
authority dictates and replace it with trust in the thoughts and
feelings of people one is close to; you do just what everyone
does(Belenky et al., 1986,p.38).Thenitbecomespossible
to trust ones own thoughts and feelings. The next step is the
quest for self. In a radical shift, a person moves away from
dependence on authority gures and begins to listen to her
inner voice. But the voice is undeveloped, and whatever
comes from the gutis taken uncritically. The voice cannot
be yet said to represent the true self. If emotional growth leads
no further than the persons gut feeling, it will be swayed by
moods, opinions, chance experiences, those Dąbrowskian
ambivalences and ambitendencies. One of the women in the
study described how she ceased to obey the whims of autho-
rities and stopped thinking of herself as dumb and ignorant:
I can only know with my gut. Ive got it tuned to a point
where I think and feel all at the same time and I know what
is right. My gut is my best friendthe one thing in the
world that wont let me down or lie to me or back away
from me. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 53)
Other women expressed similar change in themselves, the
rst stirrings of their own inner knowing:
Its like a certain feeling that you have inside you. Its like
someone could say something to you and you have a
feeling. I dont know if its like a jerk or something inside
you. Its hard to explain. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 69)
It is possible that the feeling of a jerk suggests what Gestalt
psychologists and Gendlin (1981) described as the internal
shift when a problem is solvedthe feeling of things fall-
ing into place.
Theres a part of me that I didnt even realize I had until
recentlyinstinct, intuition, whatever. It helps me and pro-
tects me. Its perceptive and astute. I just listen to the inside
of me and I know what to do. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 69)
Total rejection of any authority marks the phase of subjec-
tivism and afrmation of personal truth. Continued emo-
tional growth is denitely possible. The process of growing
toward a sense of self is very tender and most likely
different from how identity forms in adolescence.
School and church, the principal agents of socialization
and trimming individuality, stress following the rules as a
model of good behavior. To break away from the trust in
rules is particularly difcult if there is no guidance from
anyone. The quest for self is arduous:
I always thought there were rules and that if you followed the
rules, youd be happy. And I never understood why I wasnt.
Id get to thinking, gee, Im good, I follow the rules. I do
everything they tell me to, and things dont go right for me.
My life was a mess. I wrote to a priest that I was very fond of
and I asked him, What do I do to make things right?He
had no answers. This time it dawned on me that I was not
going to get the answers from anybody. I would have to nd
them myself. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 61)
Fluctuations in the sense of self but also exhilaration and
optimism in the process of change are expressed in the
examples below:
Im only the person that I am at this moment. Tomorrow
Im somebody different, and the day after that Im some-
body different. Im always changing. Everything is
always changing. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 83)
Its hard to say who I am because I dont really think about
more than tomorrow. In the future Ill probably have a
better understanding, because now I simply dont know. I
think it will really be a fun thing to nd out. Just do
everything until I nd out. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 83)
Opening to novelty and change is expressed in imagery of
birth, rebirth, and childhood, a signicant step in personal
growth even though it is far from multilevel:
Right now Im so busy being born, discovering who I am, that
I dont know who I am. And I dont know where Im going.
And everything is going to be ne. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 82)
The person I see myself as now is just like an infant. I see
myself as beginning. Whoever I can become, thats a wide-
open possibility. (Belenky et al., 1986, p. 82)
I actually think that the person I am now is only about three to
four years old with all these new experiences. I always was
kind of led, told what to do. Never really thought much about
myself. Now I feel like Im learning all over again. (Belenky
et al., 1986,p.82)
Emotional growth within the unilevel universe of level II
calls for further exploration. The above examples show that
not all material has to be generated from the framework of
Dąbrowskis theory. Beyond Belenky et al. (1986) there no
doubt exists research literature that can be explored to esh
out some of his concepts in a mosaic of living color.
For her research on highly gifted adults, Deborah Ruf
assessed the Dąbrowski level of emotional development on
the basis of descriptive criteria in the existing literature (Ruf,
1998,2009). To decide whether a subject was at the level of
transformative process, she relied also on descriptors of self-
actualization (Maslow, 1970). With this in mind she devel-
oped three categories: searchers, neutral, and nonsearchers.
Those who were still actively deciding who they are and
what they want to be [they] examine and re-examine
themselves(Ruf, 2009, p. 276) are the searchers. They
show evidence of emotional and ideological struggles;
that is, positive disintegration. Nonsearchers are the opposite,
their identity decided early. They neither examine nor search
their inner selves. They may be quite successful in their
careers; that is, outwardly realizing their potential, or only
partially, and yet be content with their lives. The neutral
category is more elusive: Someone who is neither clearly a
Searcher or a Nonsearcher(Ruf, 2009, p. 276). Nearly half
(17 out of 41) of Rufs subjects were assigned the neutral
category. Nonsearchers make statements that indicate their
need to be in control of their environments and particularly
themselves. Neutral people do not clearly indicate as strong a
need for self control as Nonsearchers(Ruf, 1998, p. 60).
Ruf (1998) culled together the following criteria for level II
Stereotypical Roles: Highly inuenced by others, values
introjected from parents, church, etc., relativistic, situa-
tional values, conicted feelings, contradictory actions,
desire for acceptance, feelings of inadequacy when com-
pared with others, lack of a hierarchy of values. (p. 59)
Let us note at the outset that there was not much evidence of
relativistic, situational values,”“contradictory actions,or
lack of a hierarchy of values.Although the values of a
good family life, the care and joy of parenting, fulllment in
a career, and helping others may be regarded as conven-
tional, they are still essential components of a life well lived.
There were 19 highly gifted subjects assessed at level II,
with IQs from 137 to 167. Half of them (10 out of 19)
suffered signicant abuse, whether physical, sexual, or
emotional. Their early home environments varied from
emotionally cold and harsh or neglectful to caring and
loving. Often the father was an alcoholic. The overriding
issue for most of the subjects was the fact that their family,
and more often the school, were not aware of their extre-
mely high intelligence. Rather than supportive they could
be hostile. Although the individuals growing up knew they
were different, the nature of the difference was not always
clear to them. They did not t in, and in the end many
realized that they would never t in and that they did not
need to t in. By this they overcame the tyranny of the
second factor, one of the dening motivators in level II, that
makes people seek approval and acceptance, to live accord-
ing to othersexpectations.
Rufs(1998) overview of her ndings is worth reprodu-
cing here:
Level II people tend to function well in society. They
understand and generally abide by the rules, stated and
unstated. They understand the culture of their society and
try to t in and show pride and pleasure when they do.
Positive feedback that they have succeeded to meet or
exceed societys norms is often important and encouraging
[to them]. (p. 60)
Some of the subjects who did not receive sufcient emo-
tional support tried rst, both morally and emotionally, to
please others and receive positive emotional feedback.
Such a need was perhaps the impetus for high career
success in a number of the subjects. As highly and pro-
foundly gifted people, these subjects can almost always do
whatever needed to be done better than most of the people
they know. Many are outwardly successful. They
achieved self-actualization in their careers without achiev-
ing it inside themselves. (p. 60)
People who operate at the level of stereotypical roles
demonstrated that they were highly inuenced by others.
Othersincludes not only their parents and church but
societal rules, laws, and possible rewards. They tend to
need and be motivated by positive feedback from others
about their actions and accomplishments more than people
at higher emotionally developed levels. (p. 61)
Rufs highly gifted subjects demonstrate the great variety
and complexity of lives within the universe of level II. In
fact, she described two kinds of nonsearchers (Ruf, 2009).
Let us call them A and B. Nonsearchers A are trying hard
to be a good person, they are hard-working, responsible,
and nice: This type of Nonsearchers often discovered
fairly early in life how to formulate and meet goals, and
once successful at meeting those goals stayed with the
original plan(Ruf, 2009, p. 278). Nonsearchers B
accepted the life as it was but always had someone, or
some circumstances, to blame for their own shortcomings
or underachievement.They came across as angry, cynical,
and negative and consequently resistant to changing them-
selves: People who hold on rmly to resentments and their
own way of viewing life, whether it makes them happy or
not, are highly resistant to positive disintegration.
Sometimes the subjects said contradictory things about
their childhood that Ruf interpreted as lack of clear percep-
tion of reality. The need to please others and nd accep-
tance was evident in only a few. A strong work ethic and a
will to succeed characterize many of these highly gifted
individuals. Those with particularly damaging childhoods
had difculty overcoming the emotional wounds of not
being wanted, of being denied their potential, and being
bullied. Childhoods lacking in love have a lasting effect. It
is a rare person who can overcome it (Anthony, 1987;
Higgins, 1994). There were some in Rufs study who
believed in their own power to succeed in life and were
able to overcome their dipsomania.
Ruf stressed that a number of her nonsearchers
emphasized having self-control and control over their
lives. Because of this, some appeared inexible. She
interpreted the need for self-control as a way of holding
tight to the status quo, as a lack of openness to changing
themselves, which would explain why they did not seek
therapy. (This kind of self-control is different from the
dynamism of self-control at DąbrowskislevelIVthat
keeps in check the lower self to enact the principles of
the higher self.) Though assessed to be at level II, Rufs
subjects did seek answers and found them in religion, or
by rejecting religion, or in their own power to reason
things out. One woman said that she developed personal
strength because she had no positive support in her
family. This is an enormously signicant growth for her
as a person. This is another instance when we nd emo-
tional growth within the connes of level II, a growth
that is more than, in Dąbrowskis description, just loos-
ening of rigid structures and being buffeted by ambiten-
dencies and ambivalences.
Their main tasks were to own their giftedness and to
adapt to the demands of career and, in most cases, raising a
family. Ruf (1998) summarized as follows:
The career self-actualizers have a number of identiable
characteristics. They have products and accomplishments,
awards, and busy schedules. They tend to nd satisfaction
and happiness in their accomplishments and tend to recog-
nize their worth as achievers and doers. In fact, a large
number of subjects at this levellead very stable lives. So
even without inner transformation, these are people who
appear to live up to their potential.(pp. 123124)
The concept of level II ts well with the case studies of
highly gifted adults and also with the Perry inspired study
of womens emotional development. The concept of unilevel
disintegration, however, cannot be applied wholly to level II
because the majority of lives identied within this level are
more or less stable. Even Dąbrowskis concept of partial
integration seems to have limited application because it
implies that there is some disintegrationgoing on or that
the person is chronically on the brink of one. This makes
little sense. Instead, we should conclude that the lives of
most people follow the stages of lifespan development and
that some may be so unreective that they match level I and
others are somewhat more reective and match level II.
1. The universe of level II is vast, not all at, with
considerable room for personal growth. It is not
amorphous and not necessarily lacking in direction
and reection. Dipping into three in-depth studies of
cognitive development, achievement of the sense of
self, and career self-actualization is just a beginning
in the exploration of this vast (unilevel) universe.
2. The rst two studies, addressing intellectual and self-
development, lay bare the dynamic features of a
unilevel process (ambivalences, ambitendencies).
They show the broadening of perspective, changes
in worldview, and rejection of social roles that cor-
responds to Dąbrowskis idea of loosening rigid men-
tal and emotional equipment. The third study
identies career self-actualization that largely ts
social norms.
3. In the theory, levels I, II, and III address three types
of development. The rst is rather conned to an
unreective life following the stages from youth to
old age. The second has room for uctuation, oun-
dering, but also for an expansion of thinking and
growth of the self. The third is one of awakening to
higher realities and ideals and reaching for them.
This type of development continues through levels
IV and V. To think of types of development instead of
levels frees us from the unavoidable automatic sug-
gestion of stages, or rungs on a ladder, that the
numbering and stacking of the ve levels does.
4. Growth of the self is a huge subject. Here we speak of it
in general terms but without precision. We are only
making a distinction about the sense of self that is uni-
level and a sense of self that involves the differentiation
of the higher and the lower in oneself, which is the
hallmark of self on the journey toward an authentic self.
5. One of the dening features of level II is suscept-
ibility to social convention and opinion (the so-called
second factor). Unilevel growth of the self, which is
at once cognitive and emotional, can defy convention
by rejecting prescribed social roles, such as of a
dutiful daughter, wife, or mother. In this case, perso-
nal growth and change breaks out of the control of
social convention and opinion.
6. The disintegration part of unilevel development is
when people are falling apart, become clinical cases,
and are unable to transcend their difculties by move-
ment to a higher level. In his description, Dąbrowski
emphasized prevalence of negative elements
(Dąbrowski, 1996, p. 43). Though this makes sense
in the context of psychopathology, it does not apply to
the development portrayed by the three studies.
7. The concept of unilevel disintegration can represent
level II only in part because evidence shows that the
majority of lives that belong here are rather stable.
Unilevel churning, turmoil, and collapsethe disinte-
gration pieceis the clinical part of the picture that deals
with psychosomatic and psychoneurotic disorders,
addictions, psychoses, and so forth (Dąbrowski, 1972).
8. Traumatic life events within the connesoflevelImay
lead to a unilevel disintegration but without any chance
for further growth. This is the negative disintegration,
oftenreferredtobyDąbrowski, where pathological con-
ditions or suicide appear to be the only possibility
(Dąbrowski, 1970,1972).
9. Can the emotional growth revealed in these studies be
a precursor to multilevel development? One can sup-
pose that the intellectual breakthrough of achieving
broad relativistic thinking, that has room for diverse
worldviews, may presage the next step. Similarly,
might the breaking out of prescribed social roles be a
preparatory step? However, the next stepmultilevel
developmentcannot be set in motion without a
strong developmental potential (Piechowski, 2014b).
This effort has beneted greatly from comments by R. Frank
Falk, Barry Grant, Tana Krueger, and two unnamed reviewers.
1. To assess Kohlberg-type moral development, Ruf used the
Dening Issues Test (Rest, 1986). All nonsearchers and the
majority of neutrals scored at the preconventional and con-
ventional Kohlberg stages of moral reasoning and at
Dąbrowski levels I and II. For the whole study of 41 subjects,
whose scores extended through all ve levels, the correlation
between scores on the Dening Issues Test and Dąbrowski
level was 0.85.
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of the Young and Bright and coeditor with Susan Daniels of Living With Intensity. E-mail:
... From a conceptual perspective, TPD is a theory of personality development (Ackerman, 2009;Chia & Lim, 2017;Oliveira & Barbosa, 2015), which emphasizes the emotional and moral aspects of development (Chia & Lim, 2017;Piechowski, 2014Piechowski, , 2017. Even though it has not been designed to specifically explain the development of talented individuals (Delallo, 2017;Rinn & Reynolds, 2012), since 1979, it has been used to understand various aspects of giftedness, particularly the socio-emotional domain, permitting a broader understanding of the characteristics of the gifted, assisting in the process of potential identification and development (Mendaglio & Tillier, 2006;Oliveira & Santos, 2015). ...
... According to Piechowski (2017), overexcitability patterns are the descriptive components of TPD that have gained emphasis on research and practices involving gifted children and adults. Therefore, this variable has been investigated to examine its relationship with giftedness, generally showing that they are associated (Carman, 2011;Garces-Bacsal, 2011;Martowski, Mactzak, & Józwik, 2018;Wirthwein & Rost, 2011). ...
... Research on overexcitabilities can equip psychologists, teachers and family members to deconstruct stereotypes related to giftedness. Usually, there is a trend to interpret characteristics associated with giftedness negatively, but TPD aims to understand them with a positive bias as, according to Dabrowski, intense and conflicting emotions do not signal mental illnesses, but need to be understood as catalyzers of development (Eiserman, Lai, & Rushton, 2015;Rinn & Reynolds, 2012;Piechowski, 2017). In addition, knowledge about this construct can help in the process of identifying gifted people, as the multiple definitions for the phenomenon may make it necessary to use different assessment methods. ...
Full-text available
The aim of this study was to compare gifted, with academic and artistic talent, and non-gifted students regarding overexcitability, as well as to investigate the perceptions of teachers from a specialized educational program for the gifted about their students’ emotional development. The study included 150 students and six teachers. As instruments, we used participants characterization questionnaires, an overexcitability scale and a semi-structured interview script. Data were analyzed using inferential statistics and content analysis. The results indicated significant differences between gifted and non-gifted students in the patterns of intellectual and imaginative over-excitability, as well as a tendency for teachers to emotionally characterize gifted students with an emphasis on psychological disorders and weaknesses. To invest in educational strategies that use information derived from overexcitability patterns as facilitating tools for the learning process of the gifted can contribute to increasing student engagement at school, keeping them motivated.
... (Dąbrowski, 1970, pp. 130-131) Yet, little critical examination of Dąbrowski's constructs has occurred outside of Piechowski's work (Piechowski, 2014b(Piechowski, , 2017. Tillier (2018) has provided in his book a secondary source and reference of TPD that includes updated reviews of the literature related to both overexcitability and the broader theory, such as neuropsychological research and resources on posttraumatic growth. ...
Full-text available
The construct of overexcitability originated from the condition known as “nervousness.” Dąbrowski differentiated it into types many years before publishing the first outline of his theory of positive disintegration. In this paper, we establish the origins of psychic overexcitability (OE), tracing its evolution in Dąbrowski’s work prior to developing his theory and later through its placement within the concept of developmental potential. Based on our study of Dąbrowski’s early Polish work, we challenge the belief that overexcitability is often misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Piechowski’s elaboration of OE in gifted education is explored, and current misconceptions and misuses of OEs are critiqued. Based on our review, we present possible future applications and elaborations of overexcitability.
... (Dąbrowski, 1970, pp. 130-131) Yet, little critical examination of Dąbrowski's constructs has occurred outside of Piechowski's work (Piechowski, 2014b(Piechowski, , 2017. Tillier (2018) has provided in his book a secondary reference of TPD that includes updated reviews of the literature related to both overexcitability and the broader theory, such as neuropsychological research and resources on posttraumatic growth. ...
Abstract: The construct of overexcitability originated from the condition known as “nervousness.” Dąbrowski differentiated it into types many years before publishing the first outline of his theory of positive disintegration. In this paper, we establish the origins of psychic overexcitability (OE), tracing its evolution in Dąbrowski’s work prior to developing his theory and later through its placement within the concept of developmental potential. Based on our study of Dąbrowski’s early Polish work, we challenge the belief that overexcitability is often misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Piechowski’s elaboration of OE in gifted education is explored, and current misconceptions and misuses of OEs are critiqued. Based on our review, we present possible future applications and elaborations of overexcitability.
... And then there is the task of filling in parts that the theory left out. We have to look elsewhere for knowledge that can fill those gaps, like Bandura's ways of circumventing our conscience or Perry's levels of intellectual and ethical development (Bandura, 2016;Perry, 1998;Piechowski, 2014Piechowski, , 2017. Psychological work at an advanced level is going on but we don't always know about it, so when you do know about such work, bring it to light. ...
Cases of advanced development are necessary to understand the theory of positive disintegration. Individual cases are also a test of the theory. Examples of advanced development suggest that Level V may not be as stratospheric as we tend to think.
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The thinking heart of the barracks" is how Etty Hillesum described herself when she was an inmate of a German concentration camp in World War II. She entered voluntarily to prepare herself for the inevitable end. Her diary is the story of her inner transformation, of being within herself a battlefield for the problems of our times, of finding joy and inner peace in the face of persecution, suffering and death. Love perfected her will-love for people and love for God. Her diary is one of the most detailed records of the work of love and will that makes advanced development possible.
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This article describes Eleanor Roosevelt's discipline of inner life. An earlier study (Piechowski & Tyska, 1982) showed that Eleanor Roosevelt met all the criteria of self-actualization as given by Maslow. Maslow labeled her a "doer" rather than a ''seer" or a visionary. But she was an inspired person, "a woman with a deep sense of spiritual mission" (Lash, 1971) and, as such, much more a "seer" than Maslow gave her credit. Christ was her inner ideal. Her methods of inner work are described in the sections on the courage to know oneself, coping with inner conflict and emotional pain, self-discipline, and the inner ideal. Her inner growth is briefly analyzed in terms of Dabrowski's theory of emotional development-a theory particularly well equipped toward understanding lives engaged in the process of inner psychic transformation.
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A qualitative, longitudinal, phenomenological case study explored how a gifted female experienced various life events and aspects of development during adolescence and young adulthood (ages 15–30 years), particularly as related to multiple traumatic experiences, which were revealed late in the first year of the study. Additional experiences, well into young adulthood, appear to have been precipitated by posttrauma phenomena, among them a sense of powerlessness, a need for control, extreme and confusing emotions and behaviors, disordered eating, and sensitivity to others’ responses. The control concern was manifested in a pervasive “sense of urgency,” which contributed to decisions that had particular impact on her development. Special attention is given to the intersection of giftedness and adversity, with reference to characteristics associated with giftedness. Method and findings begin to fill multiple gaps in the giftedness literature, but findings are generally supported by existing literature related to trauma and protective factors.
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When Dąbrowski cast his theory in a series of formal statements (hypotheses), he was clear that the hypotheses were tentative and that new research findings will necessitate changes and revisions in the theory and its concepts. Mendaglio and Tillier see the theory as cast in stone and invariable: Dąbrowski’s “choice of terms and their definitions cannot be a focus of criticism: after all, TPD is his theory.” Consequently, Mendaglio and Tillier blindly stand by even the most absurd, inadvertently erroneous statements that are contradicted by the whole theory.
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A 15-year phenomenological case study of an exceptional female from age 15 through 30 was focused on exploring the subjective experience of development during adolescence and young adulthood, with attention to how giftedness and context interacted. The main focus became her response to trauma, which was revealed early in the study. Data, including recollected childhood experiences, were gathered through letters, e-mail, face-to-face interaction, and journals and essays from her troubled adolescence. The central phenomenon that emerged is given particular attention: that giftedness was both an asset and a vulnerability throughout these years, certainly as she struggled in the aftermath of trauma and developed strategies for surviving and healing. The struggles of the subject included dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The concepts of overexcitability and positive disintegration are used to frame some findings.
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Some terms of Dabrowski's theory are misleading. The construct of level and the concepts of integration and disintegration mean different things. The concept of primary integration as a starting point for personality development is untenable in light of research on child development. In its place, Level I as a type of development that is constrained by social pressures and the effort to succeed in life will serve better. Milgram's studies of obedience and Bandura's of the ways of bypassing one's conscience are sufficient to explain how the Level I type of integration can take hold of a person. The descriptive term of disintegration is too extreme and too limiting to enclose the diversity of processes at each level that also include partial integration. Common errors that have crept into the usage of the theory are identified and corrected.
Der amerikanische Psychotherapeut Eugene T. Gendlin stellte in Untersuchungen fest, dass Menschen, die gut mit Krisen und Problemen umgehen können, offenbar über eine andere Art der Selbstwahrnehmung verfügen: Sie beziehen körperliche Empfindungen ein und äußern sich nicht nur theoretisch oder abstrakt über ihre Lage. Von dieser Beobachtung ausgehend, entwickelt Gendlin eine Methode, solche Art der Selbstwahrnehmung zu lehren: Focusing. In seinem Buch stellt er die Technik des Focusing vor und erläutert zugleich, wei diese zur Selbsthilfe bei der Lösung persönlicher Probleme eingesetzt werden kann.